Weekend Adventures: Spruce Street Harbor Park

On weekend mornings, when B wakes up, we tell her that we are going to get ready to go on adventure. Sometimes, it’s a trip the park and Starbucks for a cake pop and caffeine fix. Other times, we take advantage of our memberships at the zoo or the Please Touch Museum (if the weather isn’t great). B is happy doing just about anything and Alice just goes with the flow. And, we all are a bit happier when we can get out of the house for awhile.

Luckily, this is also the time of year when the weather is changing and there are plenty of fun, kid-friendly things to take advantage of in the city. One such destination is Spruce Street Harbor Park, which recently re-opened for its third season along the Penn’s Landing Waterfront.

There are hammocks to lounge on, games to play and food options galore, including an outpost for Jose Garces’ Distrito, Kevin Sbraga’s Fat Ham, Franklin Fountain and Federal Donuts. A converted shipping container has been turned into a Boardwalk style arcade, complete with video games, Skeeball and a photo booth. On weekends, vendors from the Art Star and the Punk Rock Flea Market set up stands near the Columbus Monument for those who want to partake in a bit of outdoor shopping. Later in the season, the RiverRink will be transformed once again into an outdoor roller skating rink, which I would love to try out with B!

This past Saturday, we had a great time looking at the boats, eating fried chicken from Federal Donuts and playing with gigantic Legos at the park.

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How she usually spends most of our adventures.

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IMG_2875Actually awake, but pouting about it.

IMG_2882In addition to giant Legos, you can also play giant Jenga, chess or Baggo

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Our waterfront has long seemed like a long stretch of missed opportunities, so I love seeing the space transformed in this way. I think we’ll be spending a lot of time here this summer!

Restaurant Review: Cochon for Brunch

Yesterday, I woke up with a major craving for pancakes and convinced Chester that we needed to go to the diner. Somehow, he interpreted pancakes as “pork” and suggested that we go to Cochon.

You might remember that we fell in love with Cochon after having dinner there back in December.  Even prior to that, we had heard rave reviews about its brunch while waiting for a table at Morning Glory awhile back. So, despite this seemingly complete disconnect in our breakfast preferences, it only took me about three seconds to totally forget that I had been craving carbs and maple syrup.

I made a reservation through Open Table (mostly because I like to accumulate the points), but when we arrived it was clear that this is probably the only South Philly brunch establishment where reservations are not a must and there most likely will not be a wait for a table. This absolutely is not a reflection on the food, but more likely a function of the fact that the menu appeals to a much narrower segment of the population—namely, those who love pork and pork products.. Even the French toast is infused with pork (andouille sausage, to be exact).

Sure, you’ll find a crab frittata in entrée list and pancakes as a side order option. But, the real reason to go is dishes like these:

The Eggs Cochon (on the top), includes slow roasted pork shoulder that comes apart with a fork, just like pulled pork. The runny yolks from two poached eggs and a cheesy Mornay sauce are the perfect complement to a crumbly biscuit, studded with bits of cheddar and bacon. Or, there’s the tender Berkshire ham chop, which is smoked and topped with a sweet, maple-citrus syrup. And, since Cochon is BYOB, you can enhance your food coma if you want by bringing some vodka to add to the restaurant’s Bloody Mary mixes or some champagne to add to its freshly squeezed orange juice.

It’s not health food by any stretch of the imagination and it will leave you feeling like you could sleep for days afterward. That’s why it’s the perfect Sunday brunch. Or, the cure for the world’s worst hangover. In short, for a lazy day, Cochon is the breakfast of champions.

Note: Cochon is cash-only

Restaurant Review: Ela

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Ela in Queen Village has been on my list of restaurants to visit since its since opening late last year. The restaurant is a partnership venture between Jason Cichonski (formerly of LaCroix) and Chip Roman (owner of the much buzzed about Mica and Blackfish, which I still have yet to try).

Fish is a predominant ingredient throughout the menu, but this is by no means just a seafood restaurant. The menu is an eclectic mix of dishes, ingredients and flavors, which run the gamut from American to Asian to Spanish and everything in between. At first glance, it all seems a bit wacky. But, the ability to take seemingly disparate ingredients and make them into inventive dishes is how Cichonski has started to make a name for himself (at 27, he’s still fairly early on in his career).

Chester started out with the oysters. I don’t touch oysters, ever, but he enjoyed them as they were fresh, sweet and briny. They were noted on the menu as having dill pickle and bacon, but he found these flavors to be pretty subtle.

I, in the meantime, had the best dish of the night—the diver scallop noodles, one of Cichonski’s signature dishes. Now, this wasn’t just scallops served over pasta. The scallops themselves were actually shaved into long, thick strands, so that they resembled noodle. The shellfish had a unique ability to hold on to the rich peanut sauce as though it was a starchy Thai noodle. Cool strands of sweet green papaya were a nice complement to the slightly salty, spicy sauce.

This was one of the most creative, memorable dishes I have had in awhile and for a moment, I considered ordering a second helping. But then the gnocchi Chester ordered for his second course arrived and we ended up sharing that. The tiny melt-in-your-mouth dumplings were served in a foamy, smoked gouda cheese sauce, and topped with hazelnuts and sweet dates. This dish was a nice mix of sweet, savory and creamy flavors that worked well together.

For the main course, I had the halibut, which was served on top of homemade longatelli (short, thick pasta noodles) and sweet English peas. The fish was fresh, simply seared and topped with a crunchy mustard-seed cracker. I don’t like my fish swimming in sauce, but since halibut is a fish that takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked in, it definitely could have benefited from more another spoonful of the accompanying hearty morel mushroom sauce to enhance its flavor. Chester had the pork belly. He noted that it was a bit tough, especially at the top layer, although the rest of the portion was very tender and flavorful.

For dessert, we shared the hot chocolate chip cookie dough. With a name like that, I expected something pretty amazing, but it was just okay. The “dough” was actually a sweet, brown sugar based sauce that was then poured over chunks of bananas browned in butter, dark chocolate shavings and vanilla custard. It was like a deconstructed version of chocolate chip cookies and milk, but the combination of ingredients was just a bit too sweet.

Although the bar menu is diverse and well-thought out (the cocktails, in particular are creative combinations with fun names, like “Last Chance to Lose Your Keys,” to match), drinks are pricey. For example, wine prices hover around $15 a glass. So, although the food is priced appropriately relative to portion size, a couple of drinks will but add a substantial amount on to your bill.

The service itself was attentive throughout the evening, but the pacing was a bit fast for our taste. We were in an out in about an hour and 15 minutes. Furthermore, some of the dishes arrived from the kitchen only lukewarm, making us thing that everything had been prepped way in advance (perhaps pork belly was a bit tough from sitting out a bit?). Given the fact that it wasn’t overly crowded and fairly easy to get an 8 p.m. reservation on a Friday evening, I don’t quite understand why there needed to turn over the tables quickly.

This semi-emptiness also makes me wonder what kind of longevity it will have in the area. Queen Village is still pretty much just a residential neighborhood and not really a dining destination. So, if you live in the area and are looking for after-work dinner options, I don’t know if the food and price tag at Ela will really fill that need.

On the other hand, though, the relative ease of getting a table can give you the chance to check out a talented chef before he becomes really famous and moves on to a place at which it will be impossible to score a table for months. Because, overall, dinner at Ela was an interesting experience and I can’t think of anyplace I’ve been to recently with such a creative approach. Although it fell a bit short in some areas, with a few tweaks to some dishes and to the pacing of the service, it definitely has the potential to be outstanding.

 

Restaurant Review: 943 (CLOSED)

I have a secret desire to be an Extreme Couponer. Sadly, it will never happen. Although I love saving money, I don’t have the patience, organization and/or math skills to make it work. I faithfully clip the coupons that get dropped off with all of the circulars on my doorstep every week and I get pretty excited when the machines at the cash registers give them to me. But most of the time, I forget my sparkly little coupon wallet at home when we go to the supermarket and by the time I get around to sorting through it again, most of my coupons have expired.

This poor track record with couponing is why I don’t let myself purchase Groupons that often either (side note—the deals for things like dental work and Botox freak me out. Those just seem like things worth paying full price for, you know what I mean?). Recently though, friends of ours had a Groupon for 943, a BYOB located in the Italian Market area that they knew that they weren’t getting around to using. Since I hate to see a good deal go to waste, I purchased it from them.

Although we had heard mixed reviews about the restaurant, Chester and I are always willing to try out a new place, especially if it’s in our neighborhood. We managed to sneak in a visit just a week before the deal was due to expire.

Since there isn’t much foot traffic in the Italian Market area after all of the businesses close for the day, I wasn’t surprised to see that it wasn’t too crowded when we visited on a Saturday night. It’s located in a very large storefront, but it’s sparsely and simply furnished. That is kind of a nice change of pace since so many restaurants in the area are quite tiny and loud and have you sharing close personal space with your neighbors.

The chef grew up in an Argentinean-Italian home and the menu reflects the homestyle cooking of his family. The selection of starters all sounded good, so we had a hard time narrowing down what we wanted to try. So, we ordered a few to share.

Our favorite was the grilled octopus. The octopus was perfectly cooked and tender and served in a saffron and fennel infused-broth and topped with fava beans. It reminded us of octopus dishes that we had on our honeymoon in Spain. For the price of the dish, though, there definitely could have been more octopus included in it.

Chester also really enjoyed the house-made sausage plate, which featured a combination of spicy Argentinean and blood sausage. I was fine with the first selection because it tasted like what I might have with Sunday gravy. I just cannot get past the spongey texture and a gamey taste of blood sausage, though.

The empanada sampler—which included beef, ham and cheese and chicken varieties–was also a highlight. The fillings were all well seasoned and the wrappers weren’t at all greasy. It seemed like maybe they had been prepared in advance, but they held up well even though they sat out on the table for awhile as we worked our way through the dishes.

The thick cut papas fritas, had a generous helping of parsley, garlic and salt that made them slightly addictive. The menu advertised them as having a broken fried egg, but our version seemed to have bits of scrambled egg sprinkled over the top. I think a fried egg with a runny yolk would definitely have added a bit more to the dish.

Finally, we shared one of the appetizer specials, the provoletta—a circle of lightly grilled provolone cheese, drizzled in olive oil and topped with bits of chorizo. Can you go wrong with any of those ingredients? No, I don’t think you can.

Although we felt like the small plates added up to a pretty substantial meal, we also decided to share one of the entrée selections—the grilled short rib. I’ve only ever had braised short ribs and this preparation didn’t seem to give the meat the same rich flavor as I’m used too. It reminded me of eating a steak, but at least it was well seasoned and pretty tender.

Overall, we ended up being pleasantly surprised by our experience at 943. I don’t know if I would go rushing back, but I was glad that I had the Groupon as an excuse to bump it up on my list of places to visit.

If you go, keep in mind that it’s cash only and you’ll probably want to grab a bottle of wine before leaving your house, because there is not a wine and spirits store in close proximity. Even if you don’t go for a full meal, it would be a good casual place to have a few glasses of wine and some snacks with a group of friends.

Restaurant Review: Rex 1516

South Street West is building up quite a nice little Restaurant Row, if you ask me. Sometimes, we drive that way on the commute home for work and have put quite a few places on our “to visit” list. I’m even curious about the random little place that’s just called “Indian Restaurant.” You’ve got to love a place that just tells it like it is, right?

Our most recent discovery of what makes this neighborhood worth a visit is Rex 1516, which serves up Southern-inspired cuisine. Although it’s only been open about two months, it seems that many others have already discovered it, as all the tables and the bar area were completely full on our Friday night visit.

The restaurant has a casual, inviting vibe (I loved the fact that they had old Alfred Hitchcock movies playing on the television over the bar area) with simple décor and a menu of comfort foods to match. At first glance, the dishes might seem pretty basic—mac-and-cheese, spinach salad, steak, and the like. But, this is a great example of how a skilled chef can take a few simple ingredients and bring them together in some truly memorable dishes.

My first course was the mac-and-cheese and I think I would rank it among one of the best that I have ever had at a restaurant. Gruyere, fontina and swiss cheeses made for a rich flavor combination and the right amount of gooiness—I like when you pull your fork away from the dish and get those strands of cheese that just don’t want to let go. The addition of roasted tomatoes and cubes of ham added to the complexity of the flavors and kept the cheesiness from becoming totally overwhelming. The perfectly al dente elbow macaroni and crunchy bread crumbs made for the right texture. I tried not to eat the whole thing. I failed.

Chester opted for the crawfish pot pie. While the pie crust on top was flaky and buttery, the crust that was molded inside the dish to hold the filling was a bit too thick and hard to eat. That didn’t really matter to us though, because the filling was pretty amazing on its own, due to the combination of rice, cheese, red peppers, onions and mushrooms, sizable chunks of the fish and a healthy does of spiciness.

For an entrée, I had the pork loin, stuffed with cornbread & sausage stuffing. I’m always a bit hesitant to order pork at a restaurant, because more often than not, it seems to come out of the kitchen as dry as a bone and difficult to chew. Not the case at all here, since it’s brined for a few days before being prepared. It was tender enough to cut through with a fork and the morel mushroom sauce added a rich, earthy flavor. It was accompanied by sweet potatoes, mashed with just the right amount of sugar and cinnamon. I wanted to eat them all, but I figured that I had already consumed enough carbs as a result of my mac-and-cheese overdose.

Chester chose the ribeye. It was cooked to a tender, perfect medium-rare, in spite of the fact that since it was a very thin cut, it could have easily been overcooked and dry. It was simply seasoned with just salt and pepper (which let the flavor of the meat really come through) and topped with lightly fried onions/shallots. There was a small ramekin of a dark, onion-based sauce provided, but the steak was juicy enough on its own that it didn’t really need it. Chester thought that the creamed spinach was a bit too salty, but gave it points for not being overly soupy.

Although we were approaching uncomfortably full (in a good way—kind of like how you feel after Thanksgiving dinner) status, we couldn’t resist trying out the honey brioche bread pudding for dessert. We would have liked there to be a bit more of the Southern Comfort glaze to soak into the thick slab of bread, but the addition of figs and molasses flavored whipped cream provided an unexpectedly good flavor combination (and I’m not even a huge fan of figs).

Rex also has a pretty robust wine, beer and cocktail menu. Chester chose a red wine and I enjoyed the lime rickey, a refreshing combination of gin, bitters, lime and club soda that was a nice complement to a heavy meal.

Regis Jansen, the executive chef, came out of the kitchen and chatted with us after our meal. He mentioned that he grew up Alabama, learning to cook with his mom, and that gave him his passion for food and cooking. He has been in Philly for the last seven years and after stints at several area restaurants, he teamed up with the owners (who also own Jet Wine Bar across the street) and started working on the concept for Rex.

We commented on the fact that the menu seemed a bit heavy, especially as we are heading into the warmer months. Regis noted that the opening had been slated for the winter—which happens to be his favorite season to cook for—but there were a few delays that pushed it back. They decided to launch the restaurant with the existing menu, but there are plans to change things up on a seasonal basis.

Service was also friendly and attentive throughout the meal. It did seem like it took awhile for food to come out to our table, but we didn’t really mind because this lag provided a nice break between the substantial courses. The only real drawback for me was that the restaurant was pretty loud—granted, we were seated right near the bar and a super-chatty bachelorette party. But, when the food is this good, I’m sure the noise level is going to be the norm for a long time to come.

Overall, Rex 1516 is definitely worth a visit. In addition to dinner, the restaurant also serves lunch and brunch on the weekends. I personally can’t wait to return and see what will be on the menu for the summer months.

Restaurant Review: City Tavern

We are still working our way through our supply of $50 gift cards from the Restaurant Week contest and noticed that the card from City Tavern was due to expire on April 1. This restaurant has never really been high on our list of places to go, but we figured it would be silly to waste the card. So, we ended up there for dinner before catching a show at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater last weekend.

The City Tavern was constructed in the 1770s and during the period of the American Revolution, it was the social and economic center of the city. It served as the unofficial meeting place of the Continental Congress and hosting the likes of George Washington and John Adams.

The current chef, Walter Staib (if you live in the area, you may recognize him from the show “A Taste of History” on PBS) maintains some of the customs, china and glassware and food of that time period. This includes having the staff dress like “colonials.” So awkward. Even when I’m walking down the street in the historic district, I have to stifle my laughter when I see the Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin impersonators. I almost lost it when the hostess referred to the restrooms as “the necessaries.” Yes, I’m five years old.

I had assumed the menu would be filled with bizarre sounding things, like pheasant or squab, and that I wouldn’t find anything that sounded appealing. There are indeed those kinds of dishes on offer, but there are also pretty standard meat and fish dishes as well. I was surprised to see fried tofu on the menu, but it turns out that Ben Franklin had a recipe for it as far back as 1770s. That Ben really was a trendsetter.

The restaurant makes all of its bread and pastries in-house, and our server brought out three different kinds for us while we were looking over the menu. I thought they were all a bit on the dry side. I don’t remember the specifics of all of them, except for the sweet potato and pecan biscuits that were supposedly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite. Those ended up being our favorite, too.

I decided I wanted something light for an appetizer, so I chose the tomato and onion salad, which consisted of four slices of beefsteak tomato, topped with bits of red onion and a light vinegrette dressing. The tomatoes were sweeter than I expected, but it was pretty standard, really.  Chester had the broiled duck and pork sausage. Although it was tasty, it came out of the kitchen pretty quickly and was just warm. We suspected that it been cooked ahead of time and sat around for a bit.

For an entrée, I had the trout. It was pan-seared, which gave it a crispy coating, and topped with several different sauces, including brown butter, lemon, and Bearnaise. This sounds like a lot, but it actually wasn’t overly dressed. Chester had the steak and shrimp. The steak was cooked to medium rare, but it lacked a lot of the intense flavor that you find in a traditional steakhouse steak. The mashed potatoes that accompanied the dish were pretty dry.

Our server brought around a dessert tray with a variety of options, including apple cobbler (served with Bassett’s ice cream) and crème brulee, that all looked delicious. We ended up skipping dessert, though because the theater is located within walking distance of a Capogiro and that was our plan for after the show!

We ended up at the restaurant pretty early in the evening (about 5 p.m.) because we had to get across town for the show, and it was already pretty filled with the touristy crowd and families with children. The service was a little bit uneven at points, with the appetizers coming out very quickly and then the entrees lagging a bit.

All in all, the food was just average. I guess if you want to have the full historic experience, it’s a cool place to go, but it goes without saying that there are other places in the city that I would recommend to visitors who really want to see what Philly has to offer.

Restaurant Review: Distrito

Even before I started writing a blog, I was a regular reader of quite a few. One of the fun things about keeping up with blogs is that sometimes your blog friends become your real life friends. That’s kind of what happened with a group of us this past October, when Shannon and Bethany organized “Always Bloggy in Philadelphia.” We hung out for an entire weekend and it was like we had known each other for years. Which, in a way, I guess we had, since some of us have spent a couple of years keeping up with each other online.

Before that weekend was even over, we were already planning for our next get together for Fall 2012. It seemed like a long way away, so, I was totally excited when Shannon announced plans for a craft workshop at her home. Not everyone from the Always  Bloggy crew was able to make it (Karen and Nellie, I’m looking in your direction), but it was great to see Shannon, Bethany and Kate again. The workshop itself was tons of fun, and I’ll have more to share about that later this week.

But, first, there were cocktails. And guacamole. And churros. And lots of yummy dishes in between.

Since Bethany came into town a few days early to stay with Shannon, the three of us were able to get together for dinner on Friday night. I sent them a list of fun places to consider, and Distrito was at the top of my list. Although Chester and I went to dinner there with a couple of friends about three weeks ago, I secretly hoped that Bethany and Shannon would pick it. And, they did.

Distrito, one of the restaurants in Jose Garces’ empire, specializes in modern takes on traditional Mexican street foods. The interior is just adorable: copious amounts of bright colors (including pink), pretty tables and chairs, a wall of Mexican wrestling masks, swings in the upstairs bar area, and a VW beetle that’s been converted into a table for four in the front window.

Here’s just a sample of the adorableness, via Bethany’s instagram:

The menu runs the gamut from soups and salads, to ceviches, to tacos, to moles.  It’s impossible to narrow the options down, so I like to go with one of the tasting menus. You get five courses, including dessert for either $45 (the Diego Rivera menu) or $55 (the Frida Kahlo menu, which includes the higher end items, like lobster). I think I’ve also mentioned before that Distrito has one of the best lunch specials around: $15 will get you two courses, plus a soft drink. It’s quite a bit of food, so make sure you build in time for an afternoon nap.

In no particular order, here are some of my favorites from this, and other visits:

1.       Margaritas—you can get the traditional mix, but I really love the fresh fruit varieties. On my recent visit, I’ve enjoyed both the mango and the pineapple.
2.       Guacamole—Not to garlicky, but not too acidic either, so you can fully appreciate the avocado. It’s also not blended to the point where it’s super creamy, so you get a chunk of avocado with each time you scoop some up.
3.       Chilango Chop Salad—it has everything a salad should have: a fruit (dried cranberries and green apples), a nut (spicy pecans) and a cheese (mild tasting queso fresco) over assorted greens. The thin tortilla strips over the top are a bit awkward to eat, however.
4.       Tortilla Soup—A bit spicier and smokier than I usually like, but the queso fresco and avocado helps to cut some of that down.
5.       Huaraches—a thin flatbread made out of corn dough (it derives its name from the oblong shape of the masa, which resembles a sandal called a huarache), and topped with a variety of ingredients. There are usually three on the menu, and my favorite is the los hongos, topped with mushrooms and truffles.
6.       Carne Asada—I’m not really a big red meat eater, but I love this dish at Distrito. The strip steak is cooked to a perfectly juicy medium rare and prepared in a slightly sour adobo. It comes with a creamy poblano corn rice, which is kind of like a Mexican risotto.

Bethany, Shannon and I had a great time on Friday night. We chatted and laughed for more than three hours, and didn’t leave the restaurant until just about midnight. The combination of three margaritas and a full tummy may or may not have knocked me out cold within 15 minutes of arriving home. A successful evening all around, if you ask me.

I know B's eyes are closed in this one, but this is the only photo I've got. And, it's also roof that those margaritas will do you in.

Restaurant Review: Supper

My mom got another year more fabulous last week, and we went out to celebrate over the weekend. (Side note: I should also mention that my aunt got another year more fabulous last week, too, since she and my mom are twins. However, she’s been feeling a bit under the weather lately, so we’ll celebrate when she’s feeling more up to it. We love you, Aunt!).

We were supposed to make a return trip to Bibou, but ended up having to find another option when my mom had to work late on Friday evening. This probably ended up being a good thing, because my brother, also known as the world’s pickiest eater, decided to join us. The chances of him eating French food? Slim to none.

One of the first places that came to mind when looking for a new option was Supper on South Street. Chester and I had been there for one of my birthday dinners a couple of years ago and I remembered that we both enjoyed it. I also remembered that it specializes in American cuisine and that most of the menu options had easily identifiable names. Chicken. Salmon. Scallops. Burger. So, I figured that would sit well with the picky one.

Supper changes their menu often to reflect the seasons and uses local ingredients. Much of the produce is grown exclusively for the restaurant at the privately-owned Blue Elephant Farm in Newtown Square. The chef travels to the farm each day to pick the ingredients that appear on plates later in the day. If you have a non-meat eater in your group, there will be plenty of options for him/her to choose from, including a three-course Harvest menu, which features only vegetarian options. The décor is reminiscent of a farmhouse—rustic and simple, with accents of warm oranges and yellows. Perched over one of the dining tables is a large light fixture, comprised of various metal elements, exposed wires, and light bulbs of varying sizes and shapes. I thought it was pretty cool, but my mom spent a large part of our dinner worried that it would fall on the elderly patrons seated below it.

We started with the cheese puffs, from the hors d’oeuvres menu. They were filled with warm cheddar cheese and sage and topped with a bacon sauce. The combination of flavors was delicious, but at $6 for three small puffs, we felt that they were a tad pricey.

Our second appetizer, the farmhouse platter, was $34, but it was pretty substantial. It contained a sampling of three cheeses, charcuterie, nuts, pickled apples and cucumbers, and spreads. I liked all of the cheeses—cheddar, brie, and a mild Amish blue cheese—but some of the meats—including pates, chicken liver mousse, and pork rilletes—were little too fancy for my tastes. I stuck to the lamb pastrami and the Boudin blanc, a white sausage that is a combination of chicken and pork meat. My mom described it as tasting “like the Reading Terminal smells.” Kind of like a farm I guess? Anyway, if you’ve been to the Reading Terminal, chances are you know what I mean. It was a pretty accurate description. There was a surprisingly good stone ground mustard on the plate, which was good spread on a bit of the cheese or meat, or just on a little bit of bread.

There were some things that I didn’t really notice—or maybe didn’t remember from my first visit—that left me a bit underwhelmed by the entrees. Some of the accompaniments were odd choices to complement the main ingredient. In some cases, there were so many elements going on in the dish that the main ingredient got lost. There’s some expression related to accessorizing outfits that basically suggests that if you take one accessory off  before leaving the house, your outfit will be perfect. This could probably also be applied to cooking as well. Sometimes, simple is better.

As an example, I had the market fish of the day, which was a sea bass. The fish itself was perfectly cooked and flavorful, but then it was paired with a lemon jam, salsa verde, creamy oregano flavored rice and escarole. The jam has a very strong flavor that I thought was overpowering to the fish and the escarole was braised, making it tough to chew. The salsa verde and rice were much better complements, and perhaps the escarole could have been as well, if a different preparation method had been chosen. Similarly, my mom had the salmon. Again, it was cooked well, but the spinach mousse, fried potatoes, fried oysters and sauce just seemed too be too much. In both cases, I felt like the cut of fish was very small relative to the price and all of the other ingredients on the plate.

Chester decided to order the osso buco, mostly because the menu indicated that it came with bone marrow. However, the small piece of the bone included with the dish had hardly any marrow at all inside of it. The rest of the dish was good, however. The generous portion of tender, flavorful veal shank was served over polenta and was shredded to resemble pulled pork. I would have liked to see the addition of tomatoes or carrots as in the traditional preparation to add a bit more to this dish and bring a bit more color to the plate. So, I guess there are cases when sometimes you need to add those little extra accompaniments.

As I predicted, my brother chose the burger, served on a brioche bun, piled high with a variety of toppings, including ham, pickles, tomatoes and cheese. Although he finished most of it, he did say it was a bit salty and didn’t really the duck fat fries. I’ve heard some people claim that Supper’s burger is one of the best in the city, but I can’t really comment since I didn’t try it. My brother would never share his food with me. Germs, you know.

Supper got dessert just right on this visit, however. My mom and I shared the dark chocolate pudding. It had a much thicker consistency and denser texture—almost like a mousse—than I would associate with a pudding. But, it was delicious and served with fresh raspberries (which were surprisingly sweet, considering I don’t think that berry season has started yet) and salted shortbread cookies. Both of these were well chosen to complement the ultra rich chocolate. Chester ordered one of the specials, Irish soda bread pudding, topped with a warm cognac flavored sauce. The soda bread minimized some of the sweetness that bread pudding can sometimes have, and I will definitely trying to replicate this with the leftover loaf of soda bread that we have in our freezer from St. Patrick’s Day.

On the whole, I don’t think I enjoyed this visit quite as much as my first one, but I wouldn’t write totally write Supper off. I think the ingredients that are used are of a high quality and the atmosphere is fairly relaxed. Since the menu changes seasonally, perhaps the issues that I noticed with the entrees would be minimized by a change of ingredients and preparations.

Restaurant Review: Porcini

Reason number 5,283 that I love living in Philly: at least five new restaurants are opening up every week. We currently have an ever-growing list posted on our refrigerator (and I have a Pinterest board) of new spots that we want to try. As soon as we cross of one, we add another one or two on.

With all of the chatter surrounding the new additions, it’s easy to overlook the places in the city that have been serving up solid food for years, but now don’t get nearly as much buzz as they should.

Porcini, an Italian BYOB on a narrow block of Sansom Street in Rittenhouse Square neighborhood which opened in 1996 (before BYOBs were really a big thing in the city)  is a great example of this. I had been there once before, several years ago, and my mom, Chester and I had a chance to try it out again tonight.

The restaurant is very tiny. We arrived at about 5:30 when it had just opened for the day, so we didn’t have a problem getting a table, but reservations are probably a good idea. Regardless, you will be sharing close personal space with your fellow diners and as the restaurant fills up, it may be a bit noisy. Throughout our visit, service was attentive, friendly and not at all rushed. All of the food, from the pasta to the sauces, is house-made (the chef even grows his own oregano, thyme and basil on the roof of the restaurant).

We shared two seafood appetizers to start with. First up was a huge plate of mussels served in a red sauce with white wine, garlic. Although I usually order my mussels in a plain white wine sauce, I loved this preparation because the sauce was made with sweet San Marzano tomatoes. We are picky about our “gravy” and gave high marks to Porcini’s version. The second dish, tender grilled octopus and baby calamari, was simply dressed with a bright lemon, caper, olive and olive oil marinade, which would have made a great dressing for just about any kind of salad. Our server kindly brought out another basket of bread so we could soak everything up.

For our main courses, my mom and I both ordered pasta dishes: Papardella in a rich Porcini mushroom sauce for me and one of the specials, Lasgana with eggplant and a fluffy ricotta filling for her. The noodles were extremely light, and neither dish was heavily doused in their respective sauces; so, while the portions were generous, we didn’t end up feeling overly full. I just would have liked just a few more mushrooms on top of mine! Chester opted for the veal in Maderia wine and mushroom sauce. When I have had veal other places, there has been a tendency for it to be pounded too thin and cooked until it becomes too dry, but neither of those issues occurred here. The medallions were so tender that they could be cut apart easily with a fork.

Overall, the dishes are very simple, but the attention to detail that has gone into choosing the right combinations of ingredients and deciding what sauces to serve with which pasta is evident. Our experience at Porcini was a great reminder that if you look beyond the places that everyone is talking about lately, you just might discover a hidden gem.

Restaurant Review: Underdogs

One of the nice things about working in higher ed is that you sometimes get random days off. For example, this week was Spring Break at the university I work for, so our office was closed yesterday. So, I decided to wander around the city and practice using the new camera and lens that Chester gave me for Valentine’s Day.

The camera is a Rebel T1-I and it makes me feel like a pretty legit photographer. Other people must think so too, because when I stopped in Barnes and Noble to pick something up in between shots, the sales associate struck up a conversation with me about how great my camera was and then about how sad he was that no one uses film anymore. I only understood every other word of what he was saying, but I smiled and nodded anyway.

Having camera in my hands made me notice things about the places that I pass several times a week that I never stop and appreciate as I zip by them in my car or walk back to and from my office quickly on my lunch break. A few shots are below, and you can see more here.

Rittenhouse Square Park

Outside a shop in Rittenhouse Square. I may get one of these for my house.

Stumbled upon Van Pelt Street, the only place that seems to be in bloom right now.

City Hall actually has some really beautiful architecture. Of course, you have to be able to tolerate the smell of pee to capture it.

The Masonic Temple. One of my favorite buildings in Philly.

Masonic Temple Arches

Of course, I made sure to build in time to stop for lunch. I met up with Chester, who unfortunately had to work, and we headed over to Underdogs, a fairly recent addition to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, which serves up hot dogs and sausages with a variety of toppings.

We had a pretty hard time deciding what to order, since the menu offers more than a dozen different options. Combinations range from the traditional, such as the Coney Classic with sauerkraut and spicy mustard to the more unique, such as the Marrakesh, which features spicy merguez sausage with harissa mayo and Mediterranean salad.

After much back and forth, I decided on the My Thai. The concept of a Thai style hot dog is bizarre, but somehow the salty hot dog, the spicy peanut sauce and the sweet green papaya slaw all worked well together. Chester always likes to sample a Chicago Dog when he finds it on the menu, so he opted for one of those, plus a Texas Tommy (because you can’t go wrong with a hot dog wrapped in bacon and topped with cheese) and the Adonis, which was almost like a gyro. He deemed the Chicago dog to be pretty authentic, right down to the celery salt, the hot peppers and the neon green relish. The Adonis, with lamb sausage with lettuce, tomato, onion and tzatziki, actually ended up being our favorite. The sausage was juicy and still had a bit of pink in the center.

From left to right, Adonis, Texas Tommy, Chicago Dog and My Thai

Overall, we found all of the ingredients to be of a pretty high quality. The hot dogs are of the all-beef variety and all of the toppings were very fresh. We did think that the rolls weren’t the best choice, as they chewy and a thick. They soaked up a lot of the juiciness of the hotdogs and kind of interfered with the flavors a bit.

The fries at Underdogs were a pretty pleasant surprise. You would think that they put so much emphasis on the hot dogs that the fries would be an afterthought. But, they are fresh cut and crispy. There are a variety of dipping sauces to choose from, including curry mayo, garlic aioli, and horseradish mustard. The first sauce is free, and additional options are just 25 cents each.

Underdogs is a relatively inexpensive lunch option for Center City, with sandwiches ranging from $3.25 to $5 and fries from $2.25 to $2.75 depending on the size. We would definitely go back to try out some more of the menu, but this isn’t the only place specializing in fancy-pants hot dogs right now. We’ve also heard some buzz about Hot Diggity on South Street, so we’ll have to put that on our list next so that we can compare.